Why didn’t I want to go?
It wasn’t because I’d miss football games. It wasn’t because I don’t know how to step away from the demands of everyday life. It wasn’t because I’m avoiding Jesus.
I didn’t want to go to the men’s retreat because I’m so very weak.
It’s been my experience that there’s little room for weakness among men. We work hard to be perceived as strong, competent and courageous. I’m no different. My problem is that I’m horrible at hiding my flaws and easily run out of energy to pretend I’m something I’m not.
Given all that, men’s retreats generally look to me like an opportunity to have a bunch of guys rub my face in the fact that I don’t measure up while they try to out-man each other. Who eats the most red meat? Who is the most daring? Who has the nicest car? Who has the hottest wife? Who has the biggest house? Who is the fittest? And on top of all that, it is a church retreat, so who is the godliest?
Still, I’ve seen plenty of men who appeared to have it all together who fell, and fell hard. I can usually protect myself from the pain of comparison by telling myself other men aren’t better than me, they just fake it better. I will even try to convince myself that my honesty about my struggles makes me somehow superior.
I carried all of that with me to the retreat.
I Was So Ashamed
When it came time for the high ropes obstacle course, I knew I was going to struggle. I’m overweight and I don’t have the upper body strength to do a pull-up much less navigate vertical obstacles. I stood there watching one American ninja warrior after another fight for the best time. I so wanted to join in, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I eventually fought past the fear and gave it a shot.
I couldn’t get past the first challenge. I barely got off the ground.
All the shame and insecurities of childhood hit me like a tsunami. My weakness was on display... and I hated myself for it. “This is why I don’t go to men’s retreats,” I told myself.
But instead of treating me like a failure, the church guys affirmed my effort and displayed a kindness so rare, it was almost unbelievable. I was completely disarmed by some of the most genuine, humble and truly spiritual men I have ever met.
As we ate, studied, played and prayed together, I was not only disarmed, I was convicted. It soon became painfully clear that I went to the retreat ready to judge anyone who showed the slightest hint of arrogance or phoniness. Upon finding none, I was ashamed to discover that I was the one doing the comparing.
What weakness. What pride. My self-hatred and self-love hit me simultaneously, leaving me disoriented and sickened.
Boasting in Weakness
I talked to Jesus about my judgment in the cause of self-protection, and this is what he said:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
– Mark 2:17
I was also encouraged by the apostle Paul when he wrote:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
– 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
The Christian faith is not about having it all together. We hate that and we avoid it, but it's true. Christianity is for the weak. It’s about admitting to God, and one another, that we don’t have what it takes. Then, when he shows up in power, everyone knows it’s him and not us.
Jesus’ victory was a victory through weakness. God took on helpless, human flesh... a baby in a barn. The creator and sustainer of all life depended on us to change his diapers. He suffered the rejection of his own people, his closest friends' betrayal, and then he died a humiliating death at the hands of a brutal government. But that’s not the end of the story. He also rose by the power of the Spirit so that his weak brothers and sisters would claim his victory by faith and rise as well. One day, God's embrace of weakness will even redeem the very earth from which his flesh was formed.
Jesus has overcome all of life’s obstacles for us. There is no need to pretend. On the cross he said, “It is finished.” That’s enough. We can actually boast in our weakness because he is powerful on our behalf.
Walking in Power
Like the song says, "Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose." Boasting in our weakness frees us from the bondage of others' opinions. Vulnerability coupled with dependence on God's power makes us dangerous. It sets us beyond the control of those who would judge us into submission. The question then becomes, how are we going to use our freedom?
At that men's retreat, it became staggeringly clear that I had used my "freedom" to judge those who I thought were enslaved to judgment. Obviously, I wasn't as free as I thought. However, Jesus came to set the captives free, over and over again, every time we crawl back into our prisons.
So, now what? What do I do with my freedom and what do you do with yours? This is what Henri Nouwen prescribes:
"I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self…The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.
Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers."
The truth is, we are weak and our churches really are filled with uptight, bound, miserable, sad sacks. Judging ourselves and them won't do a bit of good. It's far better to take our eyes off our failure, off the uptight, and simply look to the author and finisher of our faith. Any judgment of ourselves or others steals our freedom and renders us impotent to effect change.
Instead, let's boast in our weakness. Let's embrace our irrelevance and point to Jesus, the wounded healer of us all. Maybe then the power of God will once again rest upon his people.